Illinois Department of Natural Resources

CONTACT: Bob Bluett, 217-782-6384

On the Rise in Urban Illinois

SPRINGFIELD, ILL. -- Americans are seekers of opportunity, always on the move. The same appears to be true with red foxes in Illinois – many have left the country in search of a better life.

In recent years, red foxes have set up housekeeping in urban and people-centered areas in Illinois, mainly to escape coyotes that prey upon them, and to feed upon abundant cottontail rabbits found there. As coyote numbers have increased in rural areas, foxes have moved out. A person might see a fox pouncing on mice in Chicago’s grassy fields or along the outskirts of Peoria or Springfield. A farmer could find young foxes sunning themselves near a den under his barn.

Dr. Todd Gosselink conducted biological studies through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to answer a nagging question, “Why don’t people see as many foxes in rural areas nowadays?” His studies were financed through the Illinois State Furbearer Fund, which receives money from sales of a state habitat stamp as part of a trapping license. The studies also were funded through the University of Illinois.

“We found that foxes, which typically live in wild areas and fields, have become more abundant around human communities, away from coyotes,” Gosselink said. “Foxes are abundant, but they are losers in the competition with coyotes for food and territory. Coyotes don’t hold to the notion of live and let live. They kill foxes because of competition, not for food. But don’t blame coyotes; that simply is the way of nature.”

As many as 30 years ago, coyote populations were low due to now-defunct eradication programs. Coyotes have proliferated since then, moving from the western U.S. into eastern habitat where wolves used to be. Like foxes, coyotes are adaptable and can live almost anywhere.

“Coyotes are the bigger kids on the block,” Gosselink says. “We learned that coyotes killed half the fox kits we studied and as many as one-quarter of adults. When populations change or fall, people often look to blame trappers and hunters. The truth is that trappers and hunters care about wildlife, and their activities are highly regulated. Most wildlife populations produce a necessary surplus that can be taken by people or other wildlife without harming overall populations. A second truth is that nature is harsh.”

Foxes reproduce at a high rate because their mortality is high. Fox litters typically contain six to eight young and as many as 14, but about 75 percent of fox kits and 66 percent of adults won’t see a new year. Coyotes have a big impact, but automobiles, disease and loss of habitat also take a toll.

“Trapping and hunting have little effect on fox populations,” Gosselink said. “In fact, trappers helped us conduct our fox studies. They were instrumental to the effort.”

Gosselink applauds his team of trappers who used foothold traps to catch foxes for his study. Foothold traps with teeth were banned years ago, and trappers frequently check trap lines to avoid an animal being held in a trap for too long. “Our foxes showed almost no injury,” Gosselink said. “The trappers did an excellent job. Few people know that when we conduct wildlife studies, foothold traps are used to capture animals with minimal trauma. Only one-half of one percent of captured foxes showed signs of major stress due to foothold traps.”

Life is better for foxes in the urban and suburban areas; immediate threats are muted. Foxes often eat better, because, surprisingly, more rabbits can be found in urban places, compared to some rural areas where habitat has declined due to row crop agriculture. Foxes adapt easily to fragmented habitats altered by human activity. They can survive on a variety of foods, ranging from rodents to insects and nuts, making them more flexible than other species.

“Trappers and hunters are encouraged to legally harvest coyotes and foxes in rural areas,” Gosselink says. “If farmers and rural residents want to increase fox populations in places where foxes are likely to live, they should make sure that habitat exists for rabbits, a main food source. Farmers also can avoid mowing fields at certain times or improve habitat so that rabbits and foxes gain better stability.”

Both foxes and coyotes provide unseen benefits to farmers and urbanites, keeping rodent populations at minimal levels. Gosselink mentions that “one farmer found skunks living under on old abandoned farm house, and a fox family moved in and pushed out the skunks. The farmer was quite pleased to have the foxes around instead of skunks.”

People should relish the opportunity to see foxes in urban and suburban areas, and not worry about living closer to them. “ ‘Closer’ is a relative term,” Gosselink says. “Foxes might live under a barn or in a nearby field, but they are shy and secretive. You’re not likely to find one sitting on your back steps. A constant rule of thumb is to stay safely distant from any wild animal, and not attempt to handle fox adults or kits. Also, it is important to report to a conservation officer when you see strange behavior that might indicate an animal is sick, since foxes occasionally contract rabies.” Farmers with fowl can predator-proof chicken houses and other similar structures. Gosselink adds that house pets are safe since the diminutive foxes, weighing 10 to 12 pounds, will flee from a fight.

“Foxes feel the same way as many people feel toward them,” he says. “They don’t mind living near you, as long as they can keep at a safe distance.”

For information on foxes in Illinois, or ways to improve fox habitat, contact Illinois DNR at 217-782-6384. Learn more about red foxes by visiting the Fur Hunting and Trapping in Illinois website at